Women in technology – the challenges and opportunities

Women make up the majority of frontline health care workers, but they are under-represented in health care technology. Our panel looked at how we can make the most of women’s expertise

20th September 2021 about a 5 minute read
“Bringing in more talent will mean we’ll be creating more jobs for people and developing the health tech industry.” Jenny Thomas, programme director, Digitalhealth.London

Health care technology works best when it responds to the needs of the people who use it – and that means having innovators and entrepreneurs who are representative of the user base. Yet a recent report by Future Care Capital into enterprise and innovation amongst clinicians and academics in England found that in 80% of companies in the clinician sample, and 90% in the academic sample, the people with significant control were male.

At an online event on Women in Technology and Innovation, a panel of female entrepreneurs and tech leaders discussed what women could bring to health care innovation, what the barriers were and what we could do to boost women’s participation. The panellists were:

  • Josefine Magnusson, senior research officer, Future Care Capital
  • Lise Pape, CEO, Walk With Path
  • Marianna Obrist, professor of multisensory interfaces and deputy director (Digital Health), UCL Institute of Health Care Engineering
  • Jenny Thomas, programme director, Digitalhealth.London

Magnusson began by pointing out that health care is a “heavily female-dominated area in terms of its frontline staff, so in that respect you might expect that more companies in this space would be led by and fronted by women.”

So, why are there so few women in the space – and does it matter?

Thomas, whose globally-renowned company connects health tech start-ups with health care staff and academia, identified three reasons why it’s important to have more women in health care innovation. One is diversity: when health tech companies “are led by the people that they serve, then you are going to get better products.” The second is that women’s health care is under-served – having more female health tech entrepreneurs would improve the quality of health care for women. Third, she said, drawing more women into entrepreneurship would have economic benefits: “Bringing in more talent will mean we’ll be creating more jobs for people and developing the health tech industry.”

Women faced a particular set of challenges, the panellists agreed. As Thomas pointed out, these include the difficulties of working around a family and the associated concerns about financial risk. Noting that only 2% of venture capital funding goes to women-led startups, she speculated that investors might be asking questions such as: “Is it going to be moderately successful or is it going to be really successful? Is it going to really scale? And how committed are the founders? And how able are they?”

Yet there are also advantages to having children, Pape argued: “You learn to use your time better, and you learn when to say no to things more because you have less time.” Being an entrepreneur, she said, “should not be a barrier to having a family.”  And, as she pointed out, looking after children “is not the woman’s project, it’s the family’s responsibility.”

There was agreement that the right kind of support is crucial to success. Obrist is co-founder of a female-led startup company with a focus on bringing multi-sensory interfaces out from the lab into real-world environments. The company aims to establish introduce touch, taste and smell into human-computer interaction, with potential uses ranging from immersive virtual reality experiences to health and wellbeing apps.

Her company had particularly benefited, she said, from being assigned mentors after her colleague received an enterprise fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering. One of the mentors is now the company’s chairman. “He opened up the world to the business,” she said. This enabled them to “stay who we are and really pursue our ambitions but also learn a lot.”

Support programmes build confidence

Pape’s startup designs wearable tech to improve the lives of people with diabetes and Parkinson’s – using shoe insoles, for example, that provide vibrational feedback to people with balance problems to stop them falling. An invitation to join the accelerator programme at the Royal College of Art, and her links with Imperial, where she took her Master’s, had given the business a boost: “This initial university-based support is really important because you have peers in the same boat as you and have basic things you can ask people for help on.” The investor evenings and pitch seminars had been especially useful: “Those support programmes help build confidence and help you see your gaps and what you need.”

So, how can more women be encouraged into entrepreneurship? Obrist emphasised the importance of outreach work with girls’ schools, which she and her colleagues use to “bring together the excitement and curiosity around engineering and computing and couple it with the impact on health and wellbeing in order to give them an inspiration.” Women needed to be supported to take risks: “We need to tell them over and over again to be bold and I’ll be behind you – if it goes wrong, it goes wrong. If you don’t try you will never know.”